Sales Pitch

Hurghada lies on the east coast of Egypt, across from the more popular resort of Sharm El Sheikh just where the Gulf of Suez is absorbed by the Red Sea. Saudi Arabia lies further east glowering over disapprovingly at its more liberal neighbour.

The city’s promenade is a long thoroughfare of empty shops, battered restaurants and tired looking supermarkets. The walls of every house have been bleached white and beat into brittle blocks of crumbling shortbread by the punishing daytime sun. Piles of dirt and rubbish waiting to be lifted sit in every corner and weeds poke through the cracks in the uneven concrete slabs of the pavements. It’s far from the stereotypical image of Egypt: of ancient pyramids and bustling bazaars. The only sounds this early evening are from cars and motorbikes buzzing up and down a far-off motorway. This once bustling resort town favoured by rich Europeans and Americans is now flat on its backside and struggling to recover after a slew of terrorist attacks ranging from stabbings on the beach to the downing of a passenger airplane.

My brother and I are making a preliminary recce of our destination after landing in Egypt an hour previously. We walk on the edge of the main road not venturing too close to the many shop assistants that are trying to summon us into their establishments.

‘Where are you from?’ roars a young man from across the street.

‘Scotland’ I call back.

‘Ahhhhh, (obviously stumped), how you doing mate?’ comes a question in a comedic cockney accent.

‘Come inside, just looking, we have much things for wife, for girlfriend or mother’

‘No thanks man, maybe tomorrow’ I reply.

We move 10 metres down the road and are hailed by another man outside a shop.

‘Hello, hello, how are you?’ calls a man in an old Liverpool shirt.

‘Good thanks’ replies my brother.

‘Come and visit my shop friend, we have many things for you. Very cheap’

‘No thanks, not tonight, maybe tomorrow’ replies my brother.

Each shop sells the same tired fare; tourist tat with images of Cleopatra; small golden pyramids; busts of bygone rulers and crudely moulded ornaments of ancient gods and deities. I doubt much of it is made in Egypt but shipped in by the container load from China.

After six or seven salesmen using the same pitch the novelty wears as thin as the cheap clothing they are hawking inside. These are the guys that imbittered tourists whine about after returning home. By the time we reach our hotel we have been beckoned by of at least twenty of them and we are not even replying. We raise our hands to wave with a dismissive ‘yeah, yeah’. It’s bothersome but bearable. Only doing their job I suppose.

Over the next week we travel a little but mainly laze around the hotel reading books, watching Arabic subtitled TV and feasting on the all-inclusive meals and booze. Whenever we venture out, we are met with a smile, humour and hospitality. On our penultimate day, we go on a sightseeing tour. I am ripped off by the Bedouins that guard the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, bartered down into buying small alabaster busts of Nefertiti, procure marble scarab beetles and obtain an ‘ancient’ papyrus script which lights up luminous in the dark. We visit the Temple of Hatshepsut, wonder at King Tutankhamun’s tomb, and cross the river Nile to the grand pillars and statues at Luxor. Our only regret is that we decided not to take an extra plane to the Pyramids and back. When we climb up the stairs into our airplane to return home our bags are crammed with Egyptian gifts and stereotypical tourist jumble.

Our plane is (an Airbus A321- 32b) a short-to medium range, narrow body, commercial passenger twin-engine jet airliner.  A bit like the cabin crew this plane looks older than usual and a bit worn. The upholstery is tatty, and the plastic frames scratched and marked through years of passenger abuse. There are no personal tv screens but a shared screen that bends down from the roof to be shared by nine passengers: this mainly presents the plane’s flight path, speed and ETA. A fold down table – which is very practical if you have arms like a tyrannosaurus rex – holds all available food and drink which can be bought in due course.

There are 36 rows of: 3 seats, the aisle, then another row of seats, that line up to 220 passengers the length of the body. Each passenger has 28 inches of body and leg room with 17 inches available width. As a big lad I have no room for manoeuvre and my knees knock against the back of the seat in front, neither can I recline the seat its 3-inch capability, but this doesn’t stop the passenger in front trying to unsuccessfully recline hers several times. Because of these constraints I must sit upright with perfect posture and not my natural slouch. My head sticks out high above everyone else. This is our sarcophagus for 6 hours and we are positioned rigid and stationary as an embalmed mummy inside.

There is one toilet at the pilots end of the plane (remember this is important) and a further two toilets at the rear. The American Airline airbuses are outfitted with a business class area however in this plane everyone is squeezed tight together like packet of polo mints. I take my seat by the aisle while my brother, who immediately sets about sleeping despite being of similar height and girth, is sitting across the aisle in the other trio of seats. In my row there is an old couple: the wife is fidgeting in corner by the window while her husband is agitated and suffering from air anxiety or a brutal hangover. They are bickering and swearing at other under their breath. In front is a large Indian family of three generations, the kids clamber over their smiling parents while the grandparents look on. I smile back signifying that the kids don’t bother me. I buckle my seat belt and begin to watch the attendants stony faced demonstration of the flight emergency protocols.

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is the nonstop service from Hurghada to Glasgow International. On behalf of your Captain and the entire crew, welcome aboard Thomas Cook Airlines flight MT711B. Our flight time will be of six hours and fifteen minutes. We will be flying at an altitude of …”

The announcement is unnecessarily loud making the plastic speakers vibrate under the pressure. The message is bawled at the passengers most of whom ignore any information and place their headphones over their ears. The engines growl and we race down the runway and gradually rise above the airport, city then into the clouds.

No sooner has the belt buckle light dimmed then the old woman in the corner of our row needs to go to the toilet. This produces a furious response from her a narky little husband.

‘For fucks sake, we’ve only just took off’ he spits at her before turning his head to me.

 ‘Excuse me sir could you let my wife out to go the toilet, sorry’

I’m disarmed by his politeness and rise out of our row to let them both pass into the jostling queue of passengers for the toilet. An attendant is quick to scold me for taking the empty seat in the front row, but I explain that the old couple will be returning soon, and I’ll only get in the way until then. She accepts my excuse with a disdainful sneer then busies herself organising her food trolley.

An older woman is squirming at the tail of the queue eager to get into the single toilet. She is thin with a gaunt face and is wearing an old blue tracksuit and worn trainers: the old tatty type of gear that your gym teacher used to wear. I decide that she is Canadian merely because she doesn’t look Scottish but more French with a hint of American. She is clutching a grey, metal walking stick and crouches down and steadies her forehead upon her knuckles. It’s not a good look and I immediately appreciate that unless she gets into that toilet soon things will go awry very, very soon. The old couple and the others however are oblivious to her state and use the toilet with the speed of pregnant hippos.

It’s at this point, the sales spiels start roaring through the speakers: loud, obtrusive and about as welcome as a camel sneeze in the ear.

 ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, in a moment your cabin crew will be moving through the plane and you will be able to purchase everything from the catalogues situated in front of your seats’

I turn around to catch the response of the other passengers, many of whom are contorting their faces in discomfort. The luckiest put on their noise cancelling headphones but the majority must endure the racket from above.

 ‘For this journey only, we will be offering special prices on select perfume and aftershave, perfect gifts for Christma …’

Even with my iPhone feeding loud house music into my skull I can still hear the din.

The old couple complete their affairs letting the Canadian crawl into the toilet behind them. I’m ordered back into my seat and sit back and close my eyes and try to fool myself into believing that I may drop off into uninterrupted a six-hour slumber.

 ‘You will notice that today we have a special offer of any two bottles of spirits for eighteen …’

Unlike the shop tenders in Hurghada the flight attendants already have their customers in their premises, yet their sales technique is more impolite tenfold. In the process of selling their merchandise they have destroyed their passenger’s comfort and discarded their customer service. As they busy themselves at the rear of the plane, I notice the door of the toilet flap open and shut a few times followed by a hand poking through the gap to attract some attention. I turn to see if I can hail an attendant, but they are too busy preparing themselves to sell, sell, sell, so I press the help button above my head.  Thankfully the attendant rushes past me and straight to the aid of the floundering Canadian. Upon reaching the toilet she hesitantly edges open the door but is repulsed by the sight inside. She turns from the door with her eyes bulging and cheeks puffed out like an asthmatic hamster. Another attendant joins her and they exchange some disbelieving stares. Something has gone seriously wrong within that toilet and the curtain separating the bottom area is immediately drawn.  Minutes later the Canadian’s husband (a small bearded man), is hailed from the belly of the plane and he rushes forward complete with toilet bag and a change of clothes. I’m struck by his preparedness and relative joviality surmising that isn’t his first rescue.

Then in act of unnecessary callousness the attendants loudly address the passengers through the speakers:

 ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, for the rest of tonight’s journey the toilet at the front of the plane shall be out of order, please use the toilets at the back’

Everybody is now concentrating upon the toilet at the front of the plane. Only doing their job I suppose.

After five minutes of hidden theatrics the curtain is finally pulled back to reveal the Canadian who must now endure a needless walk of shame down the aisle of the plane. She tries to steel her way past the condemnatory eyes of her fellow passengers with a taut, forced smile cum grimace. I stare forward not wanting to catch her gaze (my earphones are in, but my music has long been stopped) and I feign casual disinterest. I notice that she has returned minus her tracksuit bottoms and instead some dog-eared blue shorts. She passes my field of vision and takes her seat somewhere behind me.

The attendants immediately start accepting orders in the Canadian’s wake and start to distribute food and drinks while receiving credit cards and cash in return. The old woman in my row orders a small bottle of champagne while her husband crumples himself into temporary hibernation. After a while I turn around to see the Canadian several rows back: she is fast asleep, her head tilted back and snoring loudly, nobody bothers her for the rest of the journey. I try to get comfortable and start to leaf through the airlines catalogue and prepare to spend, spend, spend.

Where are all the Bees?

Where are all the Bees?

 

 

Monday

Monday morning in Highland Perthshire is as quiet as quiet can possibly be. The locals are still rising, no cars are on the streets, even the birds are still yawning. The rays of the morning sun begin to bank over the hills of the surrounding valley and creep along the green, undulating lumps of the putting green lawn which I must mow. It’s not a bad start to the working week as far as working weeks normally go.

I always stop the mower for Bumblebees or dodge them as they lie on the lawn. The slight change in direction ruins my tidy straight lines so I must go back and retrace my path. The fat, little insects are usually crawling along like drunks. Using every blade of grass to clamber and stagger to safety. Slowly staggering until the sun’s rays reach their shivering torsos. The late evening cold snap stuns the bumblers mid-air sending them tumbling from the skies like stricken Lancaster Bombers. This climatic difference is called the Chill Coma Temperature or the critical thermal minimum temperature (7 °C) that bumblebees need to avoid entering a reversible state where neuromuscular transmission and movement stop. Meaning their flight muscles are unable to be warmed up enough for them to flutter and fly. As a result, until the morning temperature increases, they are stranded, frozen and drowsy. Lying prone like old planes in a Mojave boneyard.

I read that you should feed them a sugar to replenish their energy. It isn’t practical to carry around vials of sugary water at work so I won’t continually interrupt my early morning mow with acts of kindness, but I will spare the majority the death of a thousand cuts, the equivalent of you being torn in the blades of a combine harvester. Inevitably, some of them will be sacrificed and their broken torsos thrown into the mowers grass box then dumped in grassy heaps. Because of the pace of the mower we can’t work in our clump, steel-toed boots but change into trainers. My Dad often chooses to do his mowing in bare feet which warms my heart to see. His big, paws thumping behind the mower, the only time his toes see the sun. It’s a commonly held belief that you can pick up a bumblebee without fear of being stung but this is only half true as only the females sting.

 

Tuesday

Ladybirds used to be a common sighting in the garden when I was a child. I can remember David Bellamy telling us that if a Ladybird was fifty times its size it would eat you. That goes for most insects. Of all the flying insects Ladybirds are probably the most impressive especially in the way their dotted red shells half into wings when they take off. Like a Transformer changing from a tank to helicopter in milliseconds. These days I hardly ever come across a Ladybird in the garden but if I do, I never flick them off my arm like an aphid, but gently push them on to a leaf or ease them back into the air.

 

Wednesday

Like Japanese Knotweed and the Himalayan Balsam weed the Buddleia is deemed to be an invasive species, (a difficult term which always sounds racist to me i.e. a foreign blight, coming over here strangling our plants). It particularly thrives in arid conditions and as a result commonly found beside railway tracks and around disused buildings. Despite being deemed invasive the Buddleia could merit the award of Britain’s most loved plant such has its popularity been with garden owners in recent decades. In late autumn the Buddleia can be hacked back to its woody spine and still return in spring with a full purple bloom of nectar rich flowers. Most of our customers will leave the bush unattended in their gardens until the weight of the petals pulls down the stalks which splits the roots down to the soil. Still even then the Buddleia will sprout new shoots and return in spring rejuvenated.

Insects flock to the bush’s bounty of nectar especially butterflies hence its common name: The Butterfly Bush. Their bountiful flowers hang over like grapes enticing flying insects to feast, load and return like greedy narcotrafficantes. Unlike other pollinators, Butterflies consume plants nectar primarily as a fuel for flight however during this process the butterflies also pollinate the Buddleia and many other plants.  Although their method of pollination is less efficient than Bumblebees or Honeybees, they still play an important part in the natural process of airborne insect pollination. Shake the bush or edge near it and a cloud of butterflies explode into the sky providing you with one of the most colourful and pleasant sights within a garden. Initially spooked and probably mistaking you for a predator they linger in the air until the danger has passed then are drawn back to their quarry to feast. In the recent years these throngs of butterflies have become increasingly rare in our customer’s garden.  If we are lucky, we will get one or two rogue Red Admirals or the odd moth. It’s generally believed that their numbers are rising across Scotland, but I haven’t noticed this at all.

 

 

Thursday

I’ve sacrificed a few days’ work because of clouds of midge swamping my eyes and ears. They particularly go for the bony areas of the skull and around the wrists and ankles. I’ve used all sorts of repellent, head nets and old traditional techniques but ultimately I ’ve always had to surrender and abandon work defeated. Legend has it that upon capturing Government Redcoat soldiers, Highland clansmen would stake their prisoners naked amongst the heathered glens, those being a rich breeding ground for midges. The midges would attack and feast sending the redcoat insane with the torture. I can appreciate how brutal the torture must have been.

 

 

 

 

Friday

Wasp stings are an acceptable hazard when you share gardens with these insects during the day. Gardens are their natural habitat and you are the interloping nuisance. They tolerate your presence but in the event of a slightest infraction they are quick to remind you of your place in the horticultural pecking order. Several years back I mistakenly buzzed strimmer into an underground wasp bike despite plenty of warnings from my co-workers. You tend to switch off when completing your daily tasks and slip into an almost meditative dream like state, able to complete the day to day while listening to podcasts and idly letting your imagination fly. But a seething cloud of truculent bastards soon snaps you out of this torpor. A strimmer makes a deep, growl from its two-stroke engine and a furious fizz from its spinning head. On first appearance a squadron of wasps could easily mistake you for a massive, more furious wasp or some type of predator. Not that they need much provocation. In my case the wasps scrambled in a furious storm, rallying in defence with a pre-emptive attack. I abandoned my strimmer and escaped to the other side of the garden, but they pursued me with dogged ferocity for many metres until I was stung three times on the stomach. The wasps then returned to base, no doubt ecstatic in victory while I searched for anti-histamines and balm in the work van, anything to sooth the pain and counter the swelling and inevitable itching.

Not long after this harsh attack, I edged open a customer’s garden shed door to satisfy my nosiness and was met by another cloud of nasties, this time bees defending their football sized hive. Like a homing missile, Red Leader flew into attack, targeted my top lip and drilled deep before falling away stricken. The initial confusion soon gave way to intense pain and unbelievable swelling. My top lip ballooned to around eight times its normal size giving me the look of one of those poor Z list celebrities who experiment with collagen. The injury, for such a small assailant, was baffling and when I shared my discomfort with my co-workers I mas met with extreme concern (Father) and hysterical laughter (Brother). It took a full afternoon for the inflated lip to deflate and a further two days for it to return to normal size.

Unlike bees, wasps can sting multiple times but alike bumblebees only the females can sting. Only honeybees sacrifice themselves in attack as their stinger remains in their victim and the resultant damage to their abdomen is too traumatic to survive. Most impressively, upon stinging all Bees and Wasps release pheromones which carry back to the nest warning their comrades of impending danger. This amazing combination of emergency flare and natural Bluetooth then inspires the attack scouts to scramble into action in the form of swarm. This pheromonal communication also maintains the normal social structure of the wasp/bee colony but in late summer this cohesion begins to break down as queen cells have been laid and the hormone is no longer produced. As a result, the workers become confused, go looking for sweet foods which puts them in conflict with humans. Fortunately, I’m not stung as frequently as in past years, this could be due to my growing wisdom, but I doubt this as this is not reflected in my general life. A common question from fellow gardeners and customers is increasingly: “Where are all the bees?”.

 

 

Saturday

One of the most laborious and soul-destroying parts of a gardener’s working week is weeding. Not only do you have to get finger deep into mud and whatever else has been discarded in a flower bed, but you also must contend with more stingers at bended down eye level. However, as there are no overheads involved with weeding or “tidying up” it is also the most time consuming and as a result most profitable.

The only other option to hand weeding is weed killer using a backpack sprayer which is cheaper for the customer but far more dangerous for all. Round Up is the most popular herbicidal weed killer in the world and for decades it has been used by gardeners to destroy bothersome weeds. Roundup is usually used with a carefree abandon being sprayed with a handheld device however its industrial use requires a strict adherence to safety precautions and mixing guidelines. The safety equipment of face mask, suit and rubber gloves makes you feel as if you are handling radioactive material rather than a popular herbicide. A cap full of Round Up is added to around 20 litres of water, mixed together then broadcast upon any visible weeds. Farmers multiply this same concoction 100-fold then spray it across fields using tractors or even planes. Millions of litres are used annually. After use all the equipment must be confined in a steel container which in turn must be locked in a secure premise and any industrial users should possess a recognised certificate for legal use. After the initial dousing a weed- or any other plant-will absorb the Glyphosate through its leaves where it attacks the enzymal structure of the plant, fatally infecting the plants life systems.

Round Up was the ’flagship’ product Monsanto until it was acquired by Bayer in 2018, in turn creating an all-encompassing super agricultural corporation. Their amalgamation is widely appreciated as an effort to avoid the growing number of multimillion negligence lawsuits that have arisen since Roundup’s main ingredient: Isopropylamine salt of Glyphosate, was recognised as the of cause of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in everyday users. However just as scientists are beginning to realise – or admit – how harmful this evil syrup is to humans the evidence is also building that Glyphosate is contributing to the dramatic reduction in numbers of airborne pollinators. Simply, the chemical is infecting the insects gut microbes leaving them increasingly susceptible to fatal diseases.

In effect Glyphosate together with other factors such as insecticides and destruction of habitat is decimating the insect numbers across the globe.  The insects which have taken millions of years to perfect evolutionary miracles such as pheromonal communication and pollination, are now threatened with extinction. Monsanto have managed to achieve this feat in a matter of decades.

Bayer/Monsanto cannot control natural pollinators, yet, but it increasingly looks like they are decimating their numbers to the brink of extinction or at least until consumers are completely dependent upon their products. Products which in turn are killing their customers through deadly Glyphosate contamination. These dreadful statistics tally with my own amateur observations at work. You tend to notice small things in the garden when you spend half your waking life there. And while I am no expert it doesn’t take a scientist to prognosticate how dreadful the future will be without any pollinating insects.